Chicago’s Chinatown is making national news, but unfortunately it is because of a deadly incident which occurred Friday during which a semi-truck crashed into a the Cermak-Chinatown “L” station. 2 people were killed and 22 were injured, when the semi plowed into the escalator leading up to the train platform. This is the station I use several times a week en route to Chinatown, and I had actually been on the platform just hours before the accident. I’ve always found the intersection to be a particularly dangerous one, especially due to the proximity of vehicles exiting the Dan Ryan Expressway, but never imagined an accident of such magnitude. Service at the station, part of the CTA Red Line, the main north-south artery for Chicago rapid transit, reopened Saturday morning.
This past weekend I went back to Kansas City to catch up with friends and family, and celebrate my first Passover in the US since 2003. On my first day back in town I went out for sushi (which is now as American as a ham sandwich) with my dad, one of my brothers, and three of my dad’s friends. All of the guests were people whom I haven’t seen to much of for the past four or five years, and I was eager to catch up, even if only for the duration of the lunch.
However, throughout the meal, I couldn’t stop thinking about one thing…the table. What was so strange about the table you might ask? Well, from an American standpoint, nothing. It was a typical rectangular table with three chairs on either side. Three of us sat on the side facing the sushi bar, and three sat on the other. As we were eating, I noticed that for the majority of the time, there were three separate conversations going on, with each person chatting with the person they were sitting across from. I was sitting on the end of the side which was not facing the sushi counter. While at times I did find myself in conversation with the my dad and my brother, who were both occupying the middle spots, I found I could only talk to my dad’s friend at the other end on the other side by shouting over the table. As for my dad’s other friend who was sitting on the same side as me, but on the other end, it was virtually impossible to communicate until we got up from the table.
Diners at a Chinese meal typically sit around a circular table, so as to facilitate a conversation which can include everybody.
This would never have struck me as odd, had I not ever lived in China, where the vast majority of all tables are circular.* With a circular table, all guests can see each other as they eat, making it considerably more conducive to everyone being involved in the conversation. With a rectangular table, conversation tends to be fragmented down to groups of two or three.
While I was teaching in China, I heard several strange stereotypes from my students in regards to Westerners eating habits. One of which was that Westerners don’t talk during their meals. Not only is this inaccurate, but I would argue that the most basic function of a casual meal between old friends within Western society is very much analogous to that of Chinese society. Guests enjoy tasty food and a nice atmosphere, and possibly have something to drink. However, most importantly, it is a social event, and thus communication is the centerpiece. Why then are rectangular tables so popular in the West?
*We have circular tables in the US too, but rectangular ones are far more common.
Today is April 14, the day before April 15, the infamous date when the IRS requests all American citizens to submit their tax returns. This will be my first Tax Day in the US since 2003, and it got me thinking about paying my taxes in China. This is actually a question I get quite often from American friends. How did I pay my taxes in China? The funny thing is that I really have no idea how or if I paid my taxes in China at all (excluding projects for which I was paid for in USD).
I spent my first two years in China teaching at Chinese universities, and my salary was always in Chinese currency…and when I say “in” Chinese currency, I literally mean in Chinese currency. On the first day of every month, one of the teachers from my school would knock on my door, and hand me a folded wad of 45 one hundred RMB notes (approximately $540 at that time). There was no pay stub, no deductions, not even a little red envelope for my bills.
Typically, getting paid in cash would not be a bad thing, but I wasn’t exactly stoked about having to ride my bike to the bank once a month with that kind of cash on my person. Furthermore, I always wondered if there were any taxes I would ever be expected to pay. I asked the school administration about this several times and was never given a clear answer.
After going through this same overly simplistic process in my second university job, I came to the conclusion that my taxes were probably taken out before my income was figured. Thus, a job which had a salary of 4500 RMB per month in China, actually paid 4500 RMB, whereas in the US, a salary quote is always before taxes. Furthermore, at the end of the year there was no filing I was required to turn into the Chinese tax bureau.
This tax situation, or lack of tax situation I should say, is not just limited to foreign experts or English teachers. When I worked at the barbershop, the practice was the identical. Every month, the employees would receive their earnings, in cash, without any forms listing withholdings, and without filing tax returns at the end of the year. (It would be interesting to hear how, or if this situation is different for those whose positions are higher up on the economic totem pole than those of an English teacher or a hair washer.)
Now that I am back in the US, I am back to going through the same procedures we all do in April to ensure that Uncle Sam is getting his fair dime me. I have returned to the land of pay stubs, deductions, and 1099′s, and I can’t help but feel distant from the world where you get paid in a wad of bills, taxes are an afterthought, and there are no year-end returns to file. Sometimes it’s just the little things you miss about a living in the Middle Kingdom, like not paying your taxes.
The Slate is currently running a 3-part piece on Fuzhou for which I did some pro bono consulting. The articles, written by Patrick Radden Keefe, explore life in rural villages on the outskirts of Fuzhou, which are the source of most of the United States’ Chinese restaurant labor pool. Keefe also details the human smuggling operations which have led to these small villages’ unprecedented economic booms. You can click on the link below for the articles. They’re all worth the read.